The late Carl Sharif told him he needed to work the ward hard, and so Cory Booker pounded on doors in the Central Ward to land a Newark City Council seat, later served as a big city mayor, and then went statewide to become a United States Senator, jobs – in between the campaigns – that all add up to significant life experience – but only if one values those particular elected office skills associated with serving constituencies.
Now, as he prepares for a 2020 presidential rumble, the trouble at first blush for Booker – who assembled what in a past order of the political universe might have been a respectable two-decade resume – is that elected office no longer seems to be of any political value. Ours is a world – in the gentlest terms – that looks skeptically at the skill-set of elected officialdom, which on a good day (to borrow a well-worn New Jersey phrase) is unhip, and on a bad day may even be corrupt.
Hillary Clinton pals packaged her as the most experienced person ever to run for president, and the country (the electoral college version of it anyway) went with an Access Hollywood alternative.
Consider the following: Donald J. Trump never served in elected office prior to winning the 2016 presidential election. Same with Phil Murphy, who won the New Jersey governorship in 2017. Of New Jersey’s four new congress people-elect (Andy Kim, Tom Malinowski, Mikie Sherrill and Jeff Van Drew), only Van Drew came up the old fashioned way, serving in the New Jersey General Assembly and State Senate prior to taking his shot at the 2nd Congressional District seat.
Consider those sitting congress people alongside those incoming personalities.
All of them (with the exception of U.S. Rep. Chris Smith) built longstanding service records as elected officials.
Frank LoBiondo was in the New Jersey State Legislature. So were Leonard Lance and Rodney Frelinghuysen. So were Frank Pallone and Bill Pascrell, and Bonnie Watson Coleman – and Albio Sires.
So was Tom MacArthur (mayor of Randolph).
Only Josh Gottheimer – the newest outside of the 2018 batch, elected in 2016 and deposing U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett (who had himself served in the New Jersey State Assembly) and reelected in 2018 – never held prior elected office.
In other states, self-funders like J.B. Pritzker, the Democratic governor-elect of Illinois, have surfaced – like Trump and Murphy – as a qualified candidate by way of a bank account more than public account. And of course, on the other side of the spectrum from a donor world-cozy Clintonista like Pritzker, 29-year old U.S. Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez emerged on a wave of throw the corporate bums out who don’t breathe our air and drink our water, exiling respected but uncool U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley, who at the very least rearranged Pascrell’s leadership endorsement plans. Now Nancy Pelosi’s bid for the speakership of the U.S. House of Representatives dangles, her transgressions best expressed in a single word: experience.
But Booker – because he’s Booker and, in fact, the not-yet-50 version of himself, who always seemed to squirm within those confining conformities of whatever office he held at any given time – can actually arguably turn a perceived 2018 deficit into a 2020 asset. Amid the disjointed Great Wall of China cul-de-sacs of 565 parochialized ways of looking at the world and Telly Savalas lookalikes welded to local perspectives, Booker made a habit of never restricting himself to the expectations of New Jersey’s always jagged and jaundiced edges.
In so doing, he became – because of his own quirky composition coupled with political determination, and, it may be painful to say in this cynical age, vision – the only person in an ugly and depraved public life who appeared to palpably understand his own state’s past prejudices and limitations, and not become weighed down by them to the point of inaction or stagnation. While the generation before him walled itself off in slack acquiescence to the cinders of the 1960’s, Booker understood at a basic human level New Jersey’s desperate, tragic gulf between its urban and suburban self. Black, he wasn’t black enough in Newark, by the reckoning of the Sharpe James club, who insisted on born-and-raised credentials, a gauntlet the suburban Bergen County kid weathered long enough to become not simply the black man from Brick City seeking statewide office, but that individual of daring who most convincingly embodied otherwise irreconcilable life experiences, insisting by his very example that finally they are very much one and the same.
His early adhesion to social media gave him a leg up on a global fan base that merely augmented his own natural tendency to never be pinned down. When he showed up in Washington, D.C. to take selfies with those on the other side of the aisle seemingly most resistant to young Democratic up-and-comers like himself, he infuriated his old critics insistent on the old divisions, but reasserted that priority of big-hearted national unity expressed by Barack Obama at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. All along, his detractors seethed that his elected offices seemed less like service opportunities than stop-offs on his way to the presidency. But if he could never eradicate the appearance of ambition in constant motion, so too could those narrow confines of New Jersey never hold him, or withstand a millennial generation’s hunger for transcendent leadership.
The years in elected office were a blur.
What remained was an enduring energetic and unencumbered disposition – the art of the ephemeral or running not governing to his critics, ascending, not holding or being held – and the sudden challenge of staying new under the pressure of late-budding potential rivals, a congressman from Texas chief among them, who could similarly, for his part, get outflanked by someone else – likely with no experience, given the temper of the time.
- Albio Sires
- Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
- Andy Kim
- Barack Obama
- Bill Pascrell
- Bonnie Watson Coleman
- Carl Sharif
- Chris Smith
- Cory Booker
- Donald Payne
- Donald Trump
- Frank LoBiondo
- Frank Pallone
- Hillary Clinton
- Jeff Van Drew
- Josh Gottheimer
- Leonard Lance
- Mikie Sherrill
- Phil Murphy
- Rodney Frelinghuysen
- Scott Garrett
- Tom MacArthur
- Tom Malinowski
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